On Thursday, as part of my talk at Duke University on gaming peace and conflict issues in the Middle East, I ran through a couple of turns of ISIS Crisis to demonstrate how a matrix game functions. That led to an interesting post-presentation discussion with one of the attendees, a US special forces officer, on how a matrix game might be used to generate vignettes for tactical exercises or problem-solving discussions.
Today I had a had a discussion over coffee in Alexandria, VA with Ratiba Tauti-Cherif, who specializes in planning, monitoring and evaluation of aid and peacebuilding programmes. She was interested in how a game might be used in a training context to develop local capacity in this area. Here too it seemed to me that a hybrid approach involving some matrix game elements could be quite effective.
The results of those two discussions can be seen above, in what—for the want of a better name—I’m calling a simple planning game. It essentially works like this:
Participants are given problem to be addressed, whether it is an aid program to designed and implement, or a military objective to be achieved, or something else.
- The major steps or benchmarks to achieve the desired outcome are pre-identified by the instructor (represented above by the arrows marked Steps #1-3). These might be the primary elements of the planning, monitoring, and evaluation process for an aid project, for example, or the key stages in the Military Decision Making Process, or even a series of tactical challenges as part of a broader operation.
- Participants are divided into groups, representing real life actors. In a development context these might be local NGOs, the private sector, local and national government, donor agencies, and so forth. In a military context these might represent some combination of staff roles and units/capabilities. One member from each group is temporarily assigned to the Red Team.
- The members of the Red Team identify an obstacle appropriate to the current stage of the game, and explain how it could derail the process or operation. The various player groups then discuss ways in which this obstacle could be overcome, and offer their ideas. As in a typical matrix game, each good argument or idea generated by the participants generates a +1 die roll bonus, while each solid argument from the Red Team imposes a -1 penalty. A d6 is rolled, and the marker is advanced (or retreated) the appropriate number of positions down the track (indicated by blue squares on the image above). This processes is repeated until the participants reach the next major step/task.
Example: The participants are trying to design and implement a project to address high maternal death rates in a developing country. The Red Team argues that conservative religious leaders might be suspicious or hostile to outside efforts to address pregnancy and child-birth (-1 modifier). The aid actors respond by suggesting outreach to national religious leaders (+1) as well as engagement with community leaders in local areas (+1). The players roll a 4, which with a net +1 modifier advances them a total of five spaces towards their first major task.
- When the participants arrive at a major step/task, they are given a relevant group activity or practical exercise to complete before returning to the game. In an aid game this might be a outlining a strategy for stakeholder consultation, for example; in a military game it might be developing a proposed Course of Action.
- Members of the previous Red Team go back to their original actor teams, and a new Red Team is formed with new members. As before, the Red Team identifies an obstacle, other players try to overcome it, a d6 is rolled and modified, and the marker continues towards the next major step/task.
- The session ends when the players have reached the desired endpoint.
Organizing a session in this way allows a variety of individual topics and learning objectives to be integrated into a single coherent narrative. A skilled facilitator would be able to subtly adjust the pace of the game so that everything remains on schedule, thus addressing the time constraints of an organized course. Teams might even be given a limited number of deus ex machina or lucky break cards—things like extra resources, appeals to senior leaders , or a serendipitous meeting with a key interlocutor—that allow them to overcome obstacles that would otherwise bog down gameplay.
Facilitators would also be able to modify the degree of challenge during the game so that it remains appropriate for the participants, and to make sure that everyone feels able to contribute. The game and argument/counter-argument components should help to keep everyone energized and engaged.
Since players would rotate through temporary service as a member of the Read Team, they would gain experience both in identifying potential obstacles and in finding creative ways of overcoming them.One could instead have experienced staff or subject matter experts serve as the Red Team. This would add to the credibility of the the Red Team’s objections and ideas, although at the cost of exposing everyone to the experience of red teaming in policy planning.
If the outputs from each group activity were integrated into a single final product—for example, a Powerpoint presentation, report, or brief-back—players would hopefully come away from it all with a sense of real substantive accomplishment. In a larger group with multiple facilitators, one could even run the simple planning game as a competition, with an award given to the group that most effectively masters the process and generates high quality outputs from each of the group exercises.
Want to give this approach a try in your own training program or classroom? Contact me, and (if my time permits) I would be happy to help you customize it for your needs.